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Wikilicious or Wikilame?

December 4, 2010

 

“Only revealed injustice can be answered; for man to do anything intelligent he has to know what’s actually going on”

It seems that everyone has the names Julian Assange and Wikileaks on their lips (or at their fingertips) these days. The most recent Wikileaks have certainly proved to be their most controversial leak to date, revealing a treasure trove of information that was never meant to see the light of public scrutiny. However crucially, though undeniably interesting, this latest leak comes without the ‘smoking guns’ of previous materials related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as the  now infamous video of an American helicopter crew gunning down Reuters journalists and civilians with a troubling disregard for human life.  As a result, though as I’ve noted already, in my view some of the criticism is undoubtedly disingenuous and reactionary (I’m looking at you Ms. Clinton), there appears to be a growing feeling that Wikileaks (often personified in such critiques by its public face Jualian Assange) has overstepped the mark of legitimate ‘whistleblowing’, defined as the exposure of hidden wrong-doing by powerful actors. But what to make of it all?

According to this critical consensus there was little among this latest tranche of documents that that really pointed to action by the US or its diplomats that stood outside of established international norms. Instead it contained a mix of catty gossip, or previously unconfirmed but nonetheless broadly acknowledged action and opinion of  the US and other governments. This then was just an attack on the legitimate internal, and justifiably secret, recording of the diplomatic process. Worse still it was an attack that came from a actor that was itself unaccountable and secretive, indeed far more so than those it wished to expose, justified in the name of a radical transparency designed to weaken the capacity of state actors to conduct ‘business as usual’, or perhaps even any business at all.

More specifically some critics argue, what Wikileaks actions endanger most, is not the worst acts of elected governments in liberal democracies, but some of their more laudable qualities. Their attempts to work with forces of moderation in more volatile political climates, to negotiate the complex realities of a varied and interconnected world, and to document and effect human rights abuses by repressive regimes (see for example the hostile question which Julian Assange pointedly fails to answer about halfway through this Q&A from the Guardian, or this and this article on the consequences for international aid and human rights respectively). The actual fundamental interests of a powerful state such as the US are not greatly threatened because, as US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates put it (via in turn via):

Let me just offer some perspective as somebody who’s been at this a long time. Every other government in the world knows the United States government leaks like a sieve, and it has for a long time… Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think — I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets… some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us… Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

The attempts at a ‘progressive critique’ of the Wikileaks cables strike me as empty and speculative at best, and disingenuous at worst.  That Wikileaks “just made the world more repressive” for example, as Scott Gilmore argued, in the way it has undermined the expectations of  the secrecy of information sources on human rights abuses, is hard to square with the fact that in the specific case of East Timor that he cites, the zenith of western cooperation with the military regime was correlated with the high point of repression. However if Robert Gates is right, and I think broadly speaking he is, the question is perhaps more pertinently why leak these cables – not least since Julian Assange has himself boasted of the backlog of data that Wikileaks has at its disposal and is struggling to process?

The answer to this question is perhaps to be found in these writings (via via), in which Julian Assange lays out the intellectual framework that presumably motivates his own engagement, and perhaps the engagement of many others, with the Wikileaks project. In it is found a conceptualisation of the state as an inherently authoritarian structure whose bureaucracies operate as cognitive networks which must solve a fundamental tension between their need to maintain secrecy to minimise potential resistance to its actions, and the need to plan, organize, and adapt to challenges to actualise its goals. The key bridge used to cross this gap is in his view the control of information flows. The effects of leaks are therefore not linear, i.e. in direct proportion to their substantial content, but have a disproportionate affect on the ability of the state to function effectively. The value then lies in the action of leaking itself. And the value in leaking information about the United States government, the most powerful international actor, is therefore of greater impact than other less decisive global actors.

His is of course a highly speculative theory, and it must overcome the challenge of all utopian theory that the reality of the world does not lend itself easily to simplification. And whether the result of this process, even if it is to be to some extent successful, would be a definitively better world, as Julian Assange would clearly have us believe, is not clear. If history has taught us anything, it is that actions are defined far more by their unintended consequences than their author’s design. But what his writings also show is that in many ways the critics of Assange and Wikileaks are not unfounded in their belief that his motivations in this latest leak clearly demonstrate something more than the revelation of specific cases of wrong-doing. This is not whistleblowing, it is sabotage; but in whose name?

The reality of non-state actors that seek global change is that they inevitably suffer from their own inescapable crisis: a crisis of legitimacy. And given the already acknowleged tendency of Wikileaks’ actions to endanger specific individuals lives in the name of a greater good, we must ask ourselves to what extent Wikileaks itself instrumentalises people in the same way as the governments and corporations so many struggle against. Without doubt, the state system, in which a President, Senate or Congress in the US on a daily basis takes decisions that affect people in far away places to whom they will never be accountable, is itself bankrupt of legitimacy. But the role of Wikileaks in creating a better world must not go unquestioned, even if, it cannot also be easily dismissed.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 5, 2010 9:33 am

    Thanks for the analysis.

    You’re absolutely right that the leaking is as important as the content – many people who are opposed to the system don’t have a specific future structure in mind but just want to throw off the shackles finally and totally. This is an exercise in deconstruction, without, I imagine, the intent to reconstruct a better-functioning federal government.

  2. December 5, 2010 10:30 am

    A good summation of my own mellowing support for the wikileaks enterprise 🙂

  3. snugglebus permalink*
    December 5, 2010 12:25 pm

    Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. I have supported all of the last three leaks… but its exactly because I found myself buying into it, and because doubtless there is a lot more that is still to come from Wikileaks, that I have started to ask myself what the impact of this is going to be. .. and something just wasn’t quite sitting right.

    The problem for any resistance group which aims to act in the name of others is legitimacy. And for Wikileaks the problem is particularly pertinent because the greater good in which the people involved are claiming to act it is more or less universal or global in nature… its not founded in particular community or group, from which you can at least get a sort of qualitative sense of whether it is a shared set of aims and values. Its a few acting unaccountably in the name of the many, is it not, and as such…does it not therefore then have traces of the same structures of power that it is seeking to undermine? In this exercise in deconstruction to what extent does this undermine a project to ‘loosen the shackles’ once and for all?

    What I think brings this issue into more focus is the way in which the ‘capture and release’ nature of the document dumps was carried out. It is reasonably widely agreed that the war leaks for example did objectively endanger specific people’s lives. Of course in an important way, the reason it did was a product of the ongoing wars being perpetrated by the US, UK and others, and you could argue that ultimately all responsibility lies there. However it was the fact that this could surely have been anticipated by Wikileaks had they thought about it, but it would appear that the value placed on this was far, far less than the value placed on the release of the information itself, in the ‘greater good’. That is the definition of the instrumentalisation of people… and I think it is the sense that they instrumentalise people is exactly why it is that many people might be sympathetic when Wikileaks attacks corporations and states, and the desire to look to a world beyond them. Now to be fair it does feel like Wikileaks learned from this and tried harder with this more recent leak to deal with this (with limited help from the US government it would seem), but it tells us something perhaps about the mindset of key actors behind Wikileaks, about where they attach most value, and highlights the question, what risks are they willing to take in the name of us the people they are trying to free?

    The truth is we don’t know where all this is going, or what it will achieve. In the best case scenario (in my view… you might not share this) its more likely to transform than collapse the state system… and we don’t know really, if we are honest, in what ways. In this best case scenario though, those sorts of things are probably undecided and shaping it would form part of struggles that lie ahead. So much does still remain to be seen.

  4. December 6, 2010 8:22 am

    This is different than our current variety of “the few acting in the name of the many” because this is deconstruction rather than design. It’s like taking a group of monkeys from a nice habitat and releasing them into the jungle – at first it will be scary and some will die, but in the long run they might better express their “monkeyness” than could have happened in the controlled habitat. As you said, we don’t know where it goes from there, but many believe that the act of “being released” is necessary for our species to move forward spiritually (peacefully).

    Of course it’s more complicated for us than living in a safe, controlled habitat. It isn’t exactly what we have going on in our world right now. Some of it is controlled and safe, but much of that comes at the expense of many other people in other parts of the world who live with environmental destruction, slavery and war so we can have our comfort. My point is that him putting some people in harm’s way is no reason to defend a structure in which there is systemic abuse of a much, much greater magnitude.

  5. snugglebus permalink*
    December 9, 2010 8:57 am

    Agreed with much of what you say Mike, my concern is simply that Wikileaks won’t produce a world in which we are released into some ‘free’ habitat, which is tough but at least lets us express our full human (/monkeyness)… even if there is such a world (and I have to say I’m really not sure there is!). But that said I can’t help but root for team Wikileaks!

  6. December 29, 2010 8:14 am

    Hi Mike, thanks for the comment. I have supported all of the last three leaks… but its exactly because I found myself buying into it, and because doubtless there is a lot more that is still to come from Wikileaks, that I have started to ask myself what the impact of this is going to be. .. and something just wasn’t quite sitting right. The problem for any resistance group which aims to act in the name of others is legitimacy. And for Wikileaks the problem is particularly pertinent because the greater good in which the people involved are claiming to act it is more or less universal or global in nature… its not founded in particular community or group, from which you can at least get a sort of qualitative sense of whether it is a shared set of aims and values. Its a few acting unaccountably in the name of the many, is it not, and as such…does it not therefore then have traces of the same structures of power that it is seeking to undermine? In this exercise in deconstruction to what extent does this undermine a project to ‘loosen the shackles’ once and for all? What I think brings this issue into more focus is the way in which the ‘capture and release’ nature of the document dumps was carried out. It is reasonably widely agreed that the war leaks for example did objectively endanger specific people’s lives. Of course in an important way, the reason it did was a product of the ongoing wars being perpetrated by the US, UK and others, and you could argue that ultimately all responsibility lies there. However it was the fact that this could surely have been anticipated by Wikileaks had they thought about it, but it would appear that the value placed on this was far, far less than the value placed on the release of the information itself, in the ‘greater good’. That is the definition of the instrumentalisation of people… and I think it is the sense that they instrumentalise people is exactly why it is that many people might be sympathetic when Wikileaks attacks corporations and states, and the desire to look to a world beyond them. Now to be fair it does feel like Wikileaks learned from this and tried harder with this more recent leak to deal with this (with limited help from the US government it would seem), but it tells us something perhaps about the mindset of key actors behind Wikileaks, about where they attach most value, and highlights the question, what risks are they willing to take in the name of us the people they are trying to free? The truth is we don’t know where all this is going, or what it will achieve. In the best case scenario (in my view… you might not share this) its more likely to transform than collapse the state system… and we don’t know really, if we are honest, in what ways. In this best case scenario though, those sorts of things are probably undecided and shaping it would form part of struggles that lie ahead. So much does still remain to be seen.

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